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Julia Matthews
, c. 1862

by Davies & Co

albumen paper carte de visite (support: 10.5 cm x 6.4 cm, image: 9.0 cm x 5.7 cm)

More images of this artwork

Legend has it that Julia Matthews (1842–1876) was one of the main reasons why Robert O’Hara Burke signed up for the ill-fated expedition he led to the Gulf of Carpentaria in 1860–1861. An actress and singer twenty-one years his junior, Matthews first encountered Burke in 1858 when she toured to Beechworth, where Burke was police inspector. He reportedly saw all of her performances there and was so enamoured that he asked her to marry him. She refused. Undeterred – and purportedly thinking that the glory he expected to achieve by the expedition would make him an irresistible prospect – he proposed again on evening of the expedition’s departure from Melbourne in August 1860. She declined to give him a definitive answer, but Burke had sufficient inducement to give her a miniature portrait of himself regardless, having two days earlier made her his sole beneficiary in the event of his death. Matthews is said to have urged a search party once rumours of the expedition’s failure began to circulate in Melbourne, and soon after news of her would-be suitor’s demise was confirmed she placed a notice in the newspapers offering a reward to anyone who recovered the portrait of Burke she claimed to have lost while walking in the Botanic Gardens. Whether this was a publicity stunt or arose out of genuine sadness at losing the memento is unclear. Following the end of a six-year marriage to a faithless drunkard husband, Matthews toured the UK and the United States to support her three children. She died in Missouri in May 1876.

English photographer William Davies had arrived in Melbourne by 1855. He is said to have worked with his friend Walter Woodbury and for the local outpost of the New York firm Meade Brothers before establishing his own business in 1858. By the middle of 1862, ‘Davies & Co’ had rooms at 91 and 94 Bourke Street, from where patrons could procure ‘CARTE de VISITE and ALBUM PORTRAITS, in superior style’. Like several of his contemporaries and competitors, Davies appears to have made the most of his location ‘opposite the Theatre Royal’, subjects of Davies & Co cartes de visite including leading actors such as Barry Sullivan and Gustavus Vaughan Brooke, and comedian Harry Rickards. Examples of the firm’s work – portraits and views – were included in the 1861 Victorian Exhibition and the London International Exhibition of 1862; and at the 1866 Intercolonial Exhibition the firm exhibited ‘Portraits, Plain and Coloured, in Oils and Water Colours’ alongside a selection of views for which they received an honourable mention.

Collection: National Portrait Gallery
Purchased 2010
Accession number: 2010.167